My colleague Matt pointed this essay out to me. This brilliant piece of the same name as this post, written by Herbert Spencer in 1884, is a thought-provoking essay on self-government. While I recommend it be read in its entirety, I’m going to break up a discussion on this work into several small parts, and you'll see my comments inserted throughout the essay.
Section 1 – The Right to Voluntary Outlawry
As a corollary to the proposition that all institutions must be subordinated to the law of equal freedom, we cannot choose but admit the right of the citizen to adopt a condition of voluntary outlawry. If every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state — to relinquish its protection, and to refuse paying toward its support. It is self-evident that in so behaving he in no way trenches upon the liberty of others; for his position is a passive one; and whilst passive he cannot become an aggressor.”
MT: Here Spencer lays out his basis for the essay: that people have the right to “drop out” of society. If we accept the laws of Nature and Nature’s God, we must acknowledge that government, as an institution created by man to protect his natural rights, is subordinated to man’s individual rights: if a conflict existed between a person’s natural rights and government power, the individual’s natural rights must be superior. Therefore, supposing a conflict exists, each individual has the right to self-govern and adopt “voluntary outlawry” – meaning living outside the law, according to the dictates of conscience.
It is equally self-evident that he cannot be compelled to continue one of a political corporation, without a breach of the moral law, seeing that citizenship involves payment of taxes; and the taking away of a man's property against his will, is an infringement of his rights. Government being simply an agent employed in common by a number of individuals to secure to them certain advantages, the very nature of the connection implies that it is for each to say whether he will employ such an agent or not. If any one of them determines to ignore this mutual-safety confederation, nothing can be said except that he loses all claim to its good offices, and exposes himself to the danger of maltreatment — a thing he is quite at liberty to do if he likes. He cannot be coerced into political combination without a breach of the law of equal freedom; he can withdraw from it without committing any such breach; and he has therefore a right so to withdraw.
MT: Spencer continues and highlights a critical point. If we have a right to our life, which cannot be taken from us justly but only may be forfeited by our actions, then we also have a right to our work, which is the product of our life (our efforts, talents, and time). While nearly every sensible person will admit that slavery is immoral and unjust, fewer understand the rationale behind such a truth: we own our work because we own our lives. Furthermore, if we own our work and cannot be forced to labor for another against our will (although we may again forfeit such rights through our own negative actions; here I am speaking of incarceration), we also own and have a right to the fruits of our labor. Our labor and what we produce is ours because we own our lives; our property is ours by extension. It is therefore immoral to take from another person the fruits of their labor, whether by robbery or by compulsion through taxation. One cannot argue the power to tax without acknowledging the right to withdraw, in other words. If such a right did not exist, free men are not free at all, but merely subjects under a different monarch.
Section 2 The Immorality of the State
No human laws are of any validity if contrary to the law of nature; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority mediately or immediately from this original." Thus writes Blackstone, to whom let all honour be given for having so far outseen the ideas of his time; and, indeed, we may say of our time. A good antidote, this, for those political superstitions which so widely prevail. A good check upon that sentiment of power-worship which still misleads us by magnifying the prerogatives of constitutional governments as it once did those of monarchs. Let men learn that a legislature is not "our God upon earth," though, by the authority they ascribe to it, and the things they expect from it, they would seem to think it is. Let them learn rather that it is an institution serving a purely temporary purpose, whose power, when not stolen, is at the best borrowed.
MT: Spencer calls out that mode of thinking that even existed in his time. Namely, that external government has unlimited powers, though he uses the term “constitutional governments.” Such a mentality – if it is fair to suggest that there is any mental activity related to such a sentiment – is evident today when little consideration is given to the balance between the spheres of government. Little is, I suggest, because upon reflection one would determine that the deficient sphere is the self, and while there are few that can recognize this, there are fewer who are mature enough to admit and accept this and there are even fewer who can change that in themselves. Thus, the thing ignored and not acknowledged continues to provide a dissonance-free existence. He also astutely describes that state of depravation where a person thinks that the state is like God – full of authority and able to do anything they happen to need. A sadder existence is difficult to comprehend.
Nay, indeed, have we not seen that government is essentially immoral? Is it not the offspring of evil, bearing about it all the marks of its parentage? Does it not exist because crime exists? Is it not strong, or as we say, despotic, when crime is great? Is there not more liberty, that is, less government, as crime diminishes? And must not government cease when crime ceases, for very lack of objects on which to perform its function? Not only does magisterial power exist because of evil; but it exists by evil. Violence is employed to maintain it; and all violence involves criminality. Soldiers, policemen, and gaolers; swords, batons, and fetters, are instruments for inflicting pain; and all infliction of pain is in the abstract wrong. The state employs evil weapons to subjugate evil, and is alike contaminated by the objects with which it deals, and the means by which it works. Morality cannot recognize it; for morality, being simply a statement of the perfect law can give no countenance to any thing growing out of, and living by, breaches of that law. Wherefore, legislative authority can never be ethical - must always be conventional merely.
MT: While Spencer is right in theory, the prospect of a self-governing utopia, wherein one is free to police their own life, unmolested by the infringement of any other person, seems so far from reality as to be ridiculous. Governments are instituted among men to protect their rights, and while there are gravely immoral aspects to external government, I hope that it could be, eventually and on the whole, less immoral. Indeed, though external government will always be a necessity given the fallen state of man, I don’t assume that government must always operate in the condition that it is currently in. A government that operates on the consent of the governed to protect their rights (civil, religious and so forth) against encroachment seems at worst a morally-neutral agent.
Hence, there is a certain inconsistency in the attempt to determine the right position, structure, and conduct of a government by appeal to the first principles of rectitude. For, as just pointed out, the acts of an institution which is in both nature and origin imperfect, cannot be made to square with the perfect law. All that we can do is to ascertain, firstly, in what attitude a legislature must stand to the community to avoid being by its mere existence an embodied wrong; — secondly, in what manner it must be constituted so as to exhibit the least incongruity with the moral law; — and thirdly, to what sphere its actions must be limited to prevent it from multiplying those breaches of equity it is set up to prevent.
The first condition to be conformed to before a legislature can be established without violating the law of equal freedom, is the acknowledgment of the right now under discussion — the right to ignore the state.
MT: Where balanced government as a political philosophy has the potential to exhibit superiority over other ideologies lies in the ability to foster and revive the instinct of self-government. Spencer rightly notes that a legislature (I might add at any level) must be confined or limited to spheres of influence so as not to violate the liberties of the people it is constituted to protect. Whereas we’ve become so fantastically imbalanced, any progress to return balance to the spheres of government closest to the self would be a vast improvement; yet, eternal vigilance must be exercised in constantly pushing authority and responsibility to the most personal spheres of government.
More to follow. I hope the readership enjoys this as much as I did (and do).